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ATPM 15.07
July 2009





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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Matthew Glidden,

Small Macs: The Next Generation

A scant 60 days ago, I purchased the 2009 Mac mini from for $594. Thanks to advice from Stephen Foskett’s blog, a mere $120 more pimped the base model to 4 GB RAM and a 320 GB, 7200 RPM internal disk. As reviewed therein, this improves Xbench video and disk performance significantly in several areas. Another post examines replacing the DVD drive with RAID-0 disks, something that didn’t interest me but that would be quite a change in base storage.


Garden gnomes agree, this redefines “low-profile.”

At a $600 price point, the Mini’s target audience covers a wide range. Some come over from Windows, while others step off their older iMacs and add a monitor to the Mini’s tiny desktop footprint. For the past decade, I’ve been in the cost-conscious crowd and followed the cheap geek’s plan for delayed obsolescence.

  1. Buy a Mac Cube for $1,400 in 1999.
  2. Make incremental improvements every couple of years.
  3. Repeat step 2.

By January 2009, my Mac neared upgrade exhaustion, and I needed new base hardware. Even maxed RAM, a twice-bumped CPU, and a hand-crafted SuperDrive cradle couldn’t get around the three-headed hydra of iPhone, USB 2.0, and wireless everything. While usable, no amount of “I’m so retro” posturing made the 20th Century Cube faster or more reliable. The 2009 Mini encompassed all of these needs and tossed in a handful of bonus goodies. FTW, as they say.

Factor One: iPhones and iPods

Both iPod listeners and iPhone callers agree: sliced bread didn’t see it coming. Note to 2007 version of me: in two years, you’re going to need 32 GB of touchable music and applications like lungs crave air. Economics being what they are, moving one’s coding skills to the App Store sounds like an excellent opportunity for fame and fortune. While a PowerPC workaround exists, iPhone development is targeted at Intel-based systems. I walked the extra mile before buying a Mini, but after swearing at the uncooperative SDK installer for a few hours, my Cube-based coding aspirations departed. More power to the folks who make the whole thing work, but I needed a less troublesome process.

Factor 2.0: USB

The (aging) site includes a peripherals forum with a dozen different takes on the question, “How do I add USB 2.0?” Very short story, you can’t. My Cube runs fine with 1.1-friendly devices, but today’s market hungers for far more bandwidth than it can offer. Apple’s recent iPod and iPhone models can work over 1.1—despite “requiring” 2.0—but will take all night to copy over a large amount of tunes. Also, sticking to an older format means more than just slow performance. Over time, odd—in a bad way—quirks accreted like barnacles.


I took two of these—why does my head still hurt?

To cherry-pick a major pre-upgrade annoyance, consider the (otherwise excellent) Cube’s USB-powered speakers. They typically output at a tidy 10-watts-per-channel, which sounds nice until you start doing CPU intensive work. Now you’ve got a struggle for control and—spoiler alert—the processor’s going to win. Like a bike chain slipping gears, the Mac would suddenly drop down to a “normal” 2.5 watts. Volume lowered significantly, jittered, and often cut out altogether. Ten years of this will get to you! As an upgrade bonus, these “eyeball” speakers still work with the Mini, but sans playback weirdness.

Factor 3: Wireless Everything

2009’s Mac mini supports 801.11n wireless, Bluetooth, and encryption methods better than 128-bit WEP. Even with Mac OS X 10.5.7 installed, the Cube balked one way or another at each of these. A USB Bluetooth 1.1 adapter caused occasional kernel panics. My AirPort card eventually burned out and needed replacement. Every other neighborhood network switched to WPA (or better) security, making my WEP-only signal the low-hanging fruit for snoopers. That reason’s borne from anxiety more than necessity, but it reflects a hazard of lagging overall PC progress.


Inside the belly of the Mini.

Your Mac’s motherboard can handle only so much data at once, and component upgrades eventually expose other, non-replaceable parts. Even with a souped-up 256 MB video card, the Cube stuttered during online video playback. One can accuse bloat in Apple’s QuickTime and browser software, but that’s a fancy way of saying “I don’t know what the real problem is.” The Internet’s not much without reliable video and audio, so this grew into a persuasive upgrade argument over the last couple of years.

Mac minis support the final piece of “everything,” Bluetooth, out of the box. Of my five USB devices currently attached, four of them (keyboard, mouse, printer, and speakers) could go wireless. I routinely use a Skype headset that synched poorly with the Cube, but now it works like a champ. This feature’s more convenience than utility, but it definitely causes fewer problems on the newer machine.

Bottom Line It for Me

For most of the 2000s, Apple made jumping to new hardware an interesting idea, but avoidable. Mac OS X upgrades came though regularly, worked without complaint, and rarely felt like a hassle. That changed slowly but surely since the introduction of Intel Macs. PowerPC models remain OK for light-duty use, and many will hang on for some time to come, but folks looking ahead to Snow Leopard (a.k.a., Mac OS X 10.6) and above-average performance see the final curtain close at hand. The Mac mini offers a low-cost way to get the latest Apple offers, whether through Amazon, the Apple Store itself, or another reseller. My upgrade’s been a breath of fresh air and something I’d do again, given the option. Now there’s just the matter of finding a charitable home for my trusty, ever-stylish Cube.

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